Cricket: Left-armer to pierce Australia's armour: Mark Ilott has overcome a stress fracture of his back to stand on the verge of a Test debut. Derek Hodgson reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LEFT-ARM fast bowlers are more precious than diamonds because they are more rare. Bowling over the wicket, their natural line to the right- hander is forever probing the edge of his bat; when they straighten the ball, as he moves across the stumps, his pads are bang in front.

From round the wicket they can fire into what Geoffrey Boycott calls 'the corridor of uncertainty' outside the off-stump and they can also win lbw decisions pitching outside the line of that stump. If they are really quick and can find some bounce, batsmen, especially right-handers, prefer to keep out of their way.

Lancashire v Essex last week was an occasion, for we had the world's best, left-arm fast, Wasim Akram, bowling for Lancashire and England's best, Mark Ilott, bowling for Essex. Ilott, 22, is destined to open England's attack for many years to come. He has retained his place in the England 12 and hopes to make his debut in the second Test at Lord's, beginning on Thursday.

He is not an Essex man. He still lives in Watford and Essex have to thank the East of England Schools selectors for sending their best young prospects for a weekend's coaching at Felsted School. Among those in charge was Ray East, who immediately spotted two talents to interest Chelmsford: Ilott and Keith Butler.

That Ilott should be outstanding was to be expected. His grandfather played cricket for Ruislip Manor; his father is a qualified umpire and his brother plays for Hertfordshire. When there are that many sporting genes in the family it seems, sooner or later, a champion emerges.

For 18 months, Ilott travelled to Essex for coaching and training, collected eight O-levels and two As and, after becoming the youngest ever player for Hertforshire, won a professional contract. Butler, a right-hand batsman, was released by Essex last year after playing for Young England.

Ilott looked a class act from his Essex debut in 1988 with a free, running stride and a classical delivery; almost every cricket reporter who saw him around that time made the obvious comparison with John Lever. He spent the following winter playing in Adelaide and added a Diploma in Fitness and Nutrition to his portfolio, then a coaching qualification.

The almost irresistible rise of a talented and dedicated professional continued with an A tour to Sri Lanka until, before the 1991 season, he was stricken with the injury feared most by fast bowlers, a stress fracture of the back.

The damage done means almost always that the bowling action has to be remodelled and that there is a question whether the bowler will ever be as effective, indeed, whether he will play again.

To relieve stress on his back, the bowler has to amend his delivery, altering the sideways delivery to a more square, chest-on action. It can mean, for the right-arm bowler, that his best ball, the outswinger, becomes very difficult if not impossible.

The injury cost Ilott almost all of the 1992 season and both his county and country were concerned as to the extent of his recovery when he reappeared last summer. As expected, he did have to bowl showing more of his chest and, initially, there was a loss of pace. He was even regraded, in one publication, to medium-fast.

What happened next would have had all those football managers who delight in 'character' and 'commitment' glowing with pleasure. The Essex gurus decided that Ilott had to go through the fire: he bowled more overs than any other county bowler, and although his 62 wickets cost 35 runs each he demonstrated that his recovery, as a front-line bowler, was accomplished. And Essex were champions again.

Ilott maintains that the recovery was not quite as hard as it sounds: 'When I first opened my shoulders I realised that I would also have to re- adjust my stride. My legs were closed and too far to the left and it took time to recover co-ordination. After a while the legs fell into place to accommodate the new delivery.

'No, I don't notice any special loss of away swing. Mine develops mostly from wrist action, anyway. Malcolm Marshall and Phil Newport bowl pretty square-on, too, and they can certainly swing the ball.'

Reclaiming fitness was easy. 'I work hard at exercise, I play squash, badminton and I swim.' When he played for the champions against England A at the start of the season it was immediately seen that he had put on at least a yard in pace from last summer. 'I know from what was said to me in the winter that I was hitting the deck harder. A year's extra development makes a difference.'

That extra pace, then the difficulty he was putting good batsmen under, brought him selection for England for the first Cornhill Test at Old Trafford. When Alan Igglesden dropped out Ilott might have expected to play but Phillip DeFreitas was called up instead, the selectors probably feeling that capping three new bowlers (Andrew Caddick and Peter Such were already included) was perhaps one too many.

Ilott was happy to be recognised as Test class, even if he has had to wait for the three lions and crown: 'I think I'm bowling at my best so far but I know I'll certainly get faster. Another winter of hard work will bring, I hope, a similar advance in speed and stamina to last winter's'

Allan Border has publicly referred to the 'huge potential' shown by England's younger bowlers and it may be that England's cricket, like Britain's economy, is nearer a true revival than is generally realised. Perhaps it is true that it is always darkest before the dawn.

(Photograph omitted)